Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gridiron Red Carpet: NFL world to become a reality for Graham Harrell Graham This Harrell article from the Ennis Journal also appeared on the front page of the Waxahachie Daily Light

ENNIS — Who knew?
When Sam and Kathy Harrell recently moved into a new home in Ennis' Oak Creek subdivision, Kathy ran across her son Graham's favorite poster from his childhood days.
It was the shape of things to come.
At the bottom of the huge picture of Joe Montana, the fourth-grader and future Texas Tech record-setting quarterback had stuck a home-made label that read: "Graham Harrell – the next Joe Montana."
"I remember thinking, 'Bless his heart, he thinks he can play in the NFL!' I didn't want to burst his bubble, but I kind of felt a little hurt for him," Kathy Harrell said, unconsciously putting her hand up to her heart.
That was a dozen years ago.
Little Graham Harrell is all grown up, standing within reach of that boyhood goal.
He's the nation's leading passer with 393.4 yards per game, moving into fourth place on the NCAA career passing yardage list with 13,829 yards. He has set school career marks in touchdown passes (117) and career touchdowns responsible for (129) and is the nation's active leader in both categories.
The Walter Camp Football Foundation's National Offensive Player of the Week, Graham Harrell accounted for six touchdowns in Saturday's win in Kansas, leading the Red Raiders to a 63-21 win.
Long-time family friend Bud White of Ennis has watched his adopted grandson's football career with pride.
"He's so underrated, it just makes me furious," White said with a chuckle that belied the intensity of his words. "Of course, I'm biased. … He's my Grahamster."
White was in College Station three weeks ago when Graham Harrell scored to win the day with 59 seconds to go.
He cites Graham's modest demeanor as one of his best assets, right up there with the eye and the arm of what could be one of college football's best products ever to go into the draft.
When a trash-talking Aggie fan sore about the loss bitterly started in on Harrell, Bud White got his attention.
"I looked him in the eye and said, 'You're talking about my grandson,' " he recalled, remembering with a grin the Aggie's flustered and apologetic admission that Harrell was the best college ball player he'd ever seen.
Not that any of the Harrells are slouches. Winning at football's a celebrated and hard-earned blessing – but a familiar one – in the Harrell household.
Dad Sam coaches the Ennis High School Lions, where each of his three boys cut their teeth on the pigskin – and where he coached three teams with three different quarterbacks to state football championship glory in 2000, 2001 and 2004.
Oldest son Zach coaches receivers at Denton-Ryan High School and youngest son Clark plays football at Abilene Christian.
"Every week, I have four teams to keep up with," Kathy Harrell said.
Good thing she was a cheerleader in high school.
"I've been a cheerleader my whole life – I'm still a cheerleader. I just don't wear the short skirt," she said with a grin.
Jerry Maguire moments
Already technically graduated, former Ennis Lion Graham Harrell is currently enrolled in graduate-level courses at Texas Tech while breaking Red Raider records.
Meanwhile, the annual football clock is ticking louder and louder. Marking its time, a succession of sports agents have found their way into the Harrell family scene, hoping that maybe Graham Harrell will become one of the stars in their firmament, perhaps even the brightest one.
Red carpets have come rolling in from all directions.
"Numerous ones have contacted us, but we didn't want to meet with them all," Sam said.
"The first time someone called and started talking to us, I thought this was crazy – it was surreal," Kathy said.
In the Metroplex for a Cowboys game for some other client or prospects, an agent will call to say they'd be in town for the Friday night lights of an Ennis Lions football game.
In many ways, many of the agents have come across much like the big screen prototype, Jerry Maguire.
Not too "salesman-y," if they know what's good for them in a town where an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.
Kathy said she's had to work on being guarded – easy-going, the Travis Elementary reading recovery teacher's first instinct is to trust everyone.
"I assume off the bat that people are sincere," she said ruefully.
Together, the Harrells maintain an attitude of tempered enthusiasm. It would be easy, they say, to get star-struck by the flattery of it all – and easy to focus on short-term rewards instead of Graham's long-term prospects, which must include a post-game plan.
What they're looking for is someone with integrity, someone who has their son's future – not just a possibly-fleeting NFL career – at heart.
"The average lifespan of an NFL career is three years," Sam said. "He has to be prepared for that."
"The little span of an NFL career is not reality. No matter how good you are, it's going to end," Kathy said. "There's going to be life after football."
THE way to see America
The middle child of the Harrells' three boys, Graham has demonstrated a strong aptitude for being able to negotiate his way without a lot of guidance. That's a character trait that should help him in the NFL, his parents hope out loud as they thumb through glossy presentation books that feature their son as the star.
"The 2008-09 Quarterback Market" gives them the scoop on what the NFL has going on, right now, this week.
Who's a quarterback, who's on the bench. Blue is for rookies, red for free agents.
Who's about to retire.
Who's a rising star.
"Preparing for the NFL" is a personalized roadmap from December 2008 to May 2009. It takes a prophetic tone.
"Come January, Graham will embark on a wild, four-month journey that will culminate with him being selected in the 2009 NFL Draft. Before the end of his collegiate eligibility arrives, Graham should begin to prepare for the next stage of his football career," the caption under a picture of a bearded Texas Tech No. 6 Graham Harrell reads.
The path to the draft is care- fully metered out: There are the critical bowl games of January where the recruiting starts in earnest; Graham is expected to head out on a whirlwind winter tour.
There's the NFL Pre-Draft Combine in Indianapolis, a series of meetings for draftees from the end of February to the beginning of March.
There, Graham will be subjected to everything from drills to drug tests to the fast-moving Wonderlic test, designed to assess his aptitude for learning and problem-solving. NFL quarterbacks need to be able to think on their feet and then some.
He'll return to Texas Tech to work out. Come early April, after NFL owners' meetings, a handful of teams are likely to bring Graham to their cities so he can check them out and interview with various team officials.
Media interviews in mid-April will show his ability to – once again – think on his feet.
It all leads up to one thing on April 25 and 26.
The "Draft."
There, his agents will go to battle for him in the war rooms of the NFL to procure a deal, so he can use May to transition into his new team and new home, along with the other rookies.
If nothing else, it's certainly a fabulous way to see America.
Surreal blessings
Sam and Kathy Harrell have never been ones to speculate on their son's NFL prospects, preferring to cautiously enjoy the blessings he has reaped at each and every step of his football career.
"I know his passion for the game and I know he's worked really hard, so I assumed he'd play in college because of that," Kathy said.
But being courted by agents and hearing that general managers are watching their son's last college games?
"I call it a blessing; Kathy calls it surreal," Sam said with a smile.
The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. The same modest, measured approach Sam Harrell takes when he's asked about the Ennis Lions' successes has been picked up like a sure-thing pass by his son, who's not known for talking smack.
"He doesn't have an air of 'I'm all that,' " Sam said.
There was the spring game, Graham stood with coaches, patiently signing autographs into the wee hours from around 8 p.m. to after midnight.
It's enough to give a cheerleading mom pause.
"Seeing him sign autographs, seeing so many kids wear his jersey – it makes me a little nervous … he's just my little boy," Kathy Harrell said Monday night over salad at Wendy's on Ennis Avenue.
"It's exciting, but, when you put people on a pedestal, they're going to get criticized and, even if it's favorable attention, that adoration makes me a little uneasy," she said.
But that uneasiness takes a back seat on the brand new big screen TV in the Harrells' new home, where college and high school games have been front and center, but broadcast NFL games hold a whole new significance.
Meanwhile, on the cusp of NFL Draft greatness, Graham Harrell remains a good ol' boy from Ennis, Texas, whose favored ways to pass time range from shooting hoops to pest control patrol at a golf course in Lubbock, where he and his buddies hunt rabbits with blow darts.
"He's leading the nation in passing calls and he's talking about hunting rabbits on the golf course," Sam said with a chuckle. "That's just Graham."
Editor's Note: ESPN College Gameday will broadcast Saturday from the Texas Tech campus. The show will air prior to Texas Tech's showdown with in-state rival No. 1 Texas. Saturday's game marks the highest combined rankings of Tech and an opponent to play at Jones AT&T Stadium. Both teams are 8-0 overall and 4-0 in Big 12 Conference play. Texas Tech defeated No. 18 Kansas, 63-21, in Lawrence on Saturday, while Texas knocked off No. 8 Oklahoma State, 28-24, in Austin.
E-mail J. Louise Larson at

Saturday, October 18, 2008

An hour well-spent on O. Henry's porch

When I decided to spend an hour on O. Henry's porch, I think I was hoping to acquire by osmosis some of that magical irony and those delicious twists so present in the work of the famed Austinite who earned his place in the pantheon of authors as America's most beloved literary felon.

He died, the docent at his home at 409 E. 5th Street tells me, not rich - but popular in his own time. Not such a bad epitaph, I think, hoping just a bit of that spirit will waft my way on the late October breeze, finding its way to the dilapidated wicker chair I sit on and into my writer's brain. Surely, I thought, William Sidney Porter once perched on this porch and sipped lemonade, calling on the view of old downtown Austin for inspiration for The Gift of the Magi.

And certainly he was nowhere near as ADD as me. My inner observer was at its crowy, distractable worst, noticing anything at all that made a sound or sparkled. The passing blue taxi, a succession of orange-clad UT fans hurrying to the crucial game. Dogs - an elderly golden retriever, a short-legged and cocky mutt of dubious dachshund parentage, a white shitzu leading his owner on a leash.

But it was the squirrels that held my attention best. Muscular, big for a member of the Sciuridae lineage, built like a very small quarterback. All that was missing was a tiny orange helmet with two holes for his alert ears. He stepped onto the porch, his black eyes like what Stephen King would call two oil drops, his shiny gaze fixed on mine. He stood upright on his hindquarters just eight feet away, his athletic heart pounding visibly, rapidly in his chest - but that must be normal for a squirrel, because this was one cool cucumber. It occurs to me, if only for a fleeting moment, that maybe he's preternaturally calm because he's rabid, and I look at his neatly-groomed and pointy snout for the froth of hydrophobia. It wouldn't do for my literary excursion to turn into Old Yeller.

Next yard over, at the family home of Alamo survivor Susannah Dickinson, a derelict stone chimney can be seen through a glassless window. I see what appears to be the diminutive quarterback's Mrs. She's timid, or perhaps just reserved, and she hangs back before hurtling to dig for acorns at the base of what appears to be an oak of some sort. I note the difference between Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel - while she bolts from one place to another, he seems to saunter. Not in a hurry, no place to go, rather just watch. And I think that maybe, on this treadmill of life, we're either bolters or saunterers, and that while physically I may saunter, mentally I bolt.

It occurs to me that the non-chalant way the quarterback squirrel claims his place on the gingerbread-clad porch might mean something. Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Porter reincarnate, perhaps - William and Athol, watching over their charming restored golden-hued Victorian rancher, barred from entering their old digs but planning perhaps to attend the evening's outdoor O'Henry Film Fest to see what's been made of the pieces O'Henry penned, well, in the PEN on embezzlement charges. He wrote some 14 stories in the clinker after returning from abroad to see his dying wife - and to face charges he'd denied but fled earlier.
I remind myself - not aloud, lest the furry author think I talk to myself, that I'm a Christian and believe in the opposite of reincarnation - that we get but one bite of life's apple. Not that it kept me, while scattering my dad's ashes at a fish hatchery, from saying, a bit loud and defiant like a child who's safe enough distance away to taunt a bully, "If you come back, next time be nicer to people!"
I try to look a little closer, to see if the squirrel is wearing the wire-rimmed glasses typical of turn-of-the-century authors.
No, sometimes a squirrel is just a squirrel.

My time on O. Henry's porch passes too quickly for me to read even a few pages from the collection of his short stories I bought inside (around the corner from his Original Drafting Table and Drafts of Old Austin Composed By William Sidney Porter Himself).
But I feel a sense of energy from being where one of my favorite writers wrote, and I think, "I will do this again." And a sort of resolve not to repeat his mistakes - sloppy accounting, drinking yourself into cirrhosis. And I review a mental list of his better ideas: Making good use of time in one place. Coming back as a squirrel.
And I saunter off to my class at the Writer's League of Texas, where my mind bolts once again.
There it goes now.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gritty, oddly-named Vietnam memoir would make a good movie

The Ennis Journal / The Waxahachie Daily Light

Not war, not miles, not even years can break the bonds of friendship for two Vietnam veteran Ennis High School grads.

Ray E. Jackson of Emery, Texas has chronicled his experience in the military – and that of his best running buddy Jimmy Swindell of Ennis – in a new memoir just out.

Self-published by Jackson through Bloomington, Indiana-based iUniverse, the book’s deceptively plain name, “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia,” just skims the surface of both the tragedy and comedy of war found in its gritty pages.

An Ennis native, Jackson graduated from Ennis High School in 1967. “I went into the military in October of 1967, along with about half of my senior class,” he recalled.

He went to Germany and then to Vietnam, arriving in country July 4, 1969.

Rising to the rank of sergeant (E-5) in the Army’s military police, Jackson had more than one “worst moment.” “There were several close calls. I got hit by a concussion that threw me into a building in a mortar rocket attack, and I had a 45 shoved in my face involving one of our own troops,” he said in an interview Monday.

But the most devastating and lingering wound of all was the horrific after-effects of Agent Orange, which was only recognized years later for the lasting damages it did to U.S. troops. “It was a mixture used to kill the foliage, but there was something in that chemical that affected us. They sprayed it out – sometimes in choppers, mostly from C-131s,” Jackson recalled.

Both in the Army’s 101st Airborne division, 10,000 miles from home, unbeknownst to each other, EHS running buddies Jackson and Jimmy Swindell were stationed within a few miles of each other. Jimmy was at Camp Eagle, and Ray at Phu Bai – and never knew it until Swindell, on leave in Australia, heard from his mom, who was in contact with Jackson’s mom. Jimmy hitched a ride into the MP operation at Phu Bai and went to see his friend, who was nodding off at the time. “I shook his toe a second time, and he sat up like he was going to hit me,” Swindell recalled with a grin. When Ray realized it was one of his best running buddies from home, the friends had a big reunion. “Jimmy was more like a brother than a friend,” Jackson said.

Swindell agreed.“I can’t explain to you how it felt to see him there, in the jungle. We were best friends, we played baseball together when we were kids, we ran together – and there we were,” he recalled.

Jimmy’s Story

Almost 40 years later, Ennis resident Swindell’s account of Vietnam became part of author Jackson’s book.“There’s quite a bit in the book about Jimmy,” Jackson said. In fact, a whole chapter is devoted to a frank recollection of Swindell’s R&R hijinks. If it was a movie – and it might make a fine movie, in the tradition of M*A*S*H – Jackson’s book would be rated R. “It was pretty informative about things that actually happened – but it’s got some personal stuff in it,” Swindell said. “He talks about going to massage parlors and all kinds of things. Ray just wrote the truth, and that’s what people want to read, I guess.”

Swindell doesn’t talk much about his “365 glorious days” (his words) in Vietnam. He was drafted in 1969 after dropping out of Abilene Christian after a year. "When I first got over there, I was in a platoon of 30 guys, and until I got used to the country and what went on over there, I was scared to death. I was just a kid,” he remembered. “Then they asked for volunteers to be snipers, and I volunteered.”

Considered special ops, the snipers went out in five-man teams in the jungle for a week at a time. They would rappel down lines dangling from helicopters, disappearing into elephant grass that was as deep as they were tall. Their assignment: hunt down the enemy, the Viet Cong, who sympathized with the North Vietnamese. If they found a group of less than five, take them out. More than five, call for support. And stay alive. “It was kill or be killed. You had to have that kind of attitude or you wouldn’t make it home. You couldn’t be passive.”

One time, it rained down on his unit, huddled under their rain capes pitched as tents, for 11 days, straight, non-stop. They might go for days or even a month without spotting the enemy – and then all hell might break loose.

Swindell believes the move to the sniper unit actually saved his life. “The company that I had been with were up on a mountain and I could hear people talking on radios.“They got into a fire fight, and I started recognizing voices – that was the platoon I was in. You could hear the sheer terror – they were screaming for more body bags,” he remembered. Across the valley, Swindell’s sniper unit watched, thunderstruck, as Phantom jets zoomed in to drop barrels of napalm – on impact, they split open and the gelled gasoline burst into long-lasting flames. There were American casualties dying in agony under that American napalm. “It burnt up some of the guys. I would have been close to the front of the squad, in a position where the napalm hit, and the first five guys got burnt up,” he said soberly.

Exactly 365 days after arriving in country, Swindell headed back to America.

For all its terrible loveliness, even in wartime, he has mixed emotions about Vietnam. “It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – I’d never want to go back,” he said.

Four decades later, now a Union Pacific railroad engineer back home in Ennis and married to his sweetheart Nancy, when he sees a returning soldier in uniform, he has a singular response: “I shake their hand and tell them ‘Thank you,’” he said, a tear welling up.

Swindell found that while his buddy Jackson’s book exposes some of his own rawest and most personal memories of the war, it was still fascinating. “For the most part, the book is pretty true to life … it captivated me once I started reading it – it kept me going … I like the way he wrote – he skipped back and forth, from different stories at different times, and then he’d come back to the story later,” he said.

Ever After

Jackson lives with his wife Barbara in Emery, Texas. His life to date has been good, but not perfect by any means. He is fully disabled because of health conditions attributed to Agent Orange, including permanent damage to his kidneys from uncontrolled diabetes. “We lost our baby in a car wreck in 2006,” he said. “I dedicated the book to him, to Kyle.” He still has his oldest son, Todd, and daughters Courtney and Tonya.

A first-time author, Jackson is experiencing the joys and travails of publishing with “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia.”“It was my first book, so I was going to make a few mistakes … To make those words mean something takes a while. You have to revise it, and edit it, and read it yourself, before it makes sense to you or to someone else,” he said.

He started in January, finished in June; the book was published in September. “Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia” is finding a welcome in his home town. The American Legion in Ennis is going to sponsor his book and a book signing, Jackson said. “This way people can drop by and I can visit with them,” he said. “Any exposure I can get will be well appreciated.”

And once again, his own experiences are taking him toward writing – this time about loss and survival. “The book I’m writing now is based on a true story about family love, from happiness to heartache,” he said. “It’s about when you begin a family, how happy you are, and when you add kids to equation gets even better – they’re the apple of your eye. Then one day, you wake up and you start losing them, or something happens. It’s a challenge that a family has to overcome, to lose that loved one. You have to be very close to God, and keep that loved one in your heart. You never get totally over it – you get through it, but you never get over it.”

Author to sign book at Autumn Days SaturdayVietnam veteran and Ennis native Ray Jackson will be at Autumn Days in Ennis on Saturday from 10 a.m.-12 noon to meet friends and visit about his book.Military Police Protection in Southeast Asia by Ray E. Jackson, $22.95, 316 pages, perfect-bound softcover 6x9. ISBN: 978-0-595-52301-6 For information about buying Ray Jackson’s book, e-mail him at or leave a voice message at 903-473-8092, or order it at

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Karen Joy Fowler: Writing Porch Author Q and A

Note from The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson: Although Karen Joy Fowler came to Mesquite to talk about Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451, this piece is an author profile, so it's about Fowler. If Bradbury will respond to my emails, I'll interview him, too. Now THAT would be science fiction ... jl

Meet Karen Joy Fowler, whose book 'The Jane Austen Book Club' was turned into a movie with Emily Blunt and Jimmy Smits.

Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, the newly-released Wit's End, and tw0-time Nebula award winner, is not Gwyneth Paltrow's favorite author.

At least, she doesn't think she is.

Once introduced as being cited as favorite author on Paltrow's website, Fowler was distracted for much of that presentation as she tried to figure out how she had come to be the famed actress' favorite author for her book 'Sarah Canary.' The short of it? She realized it was a mistake - she is cited on the website of Gwyneth JONES as favorite author - and only shame for her own distraction kept her from coming clean about the mix-up mid-presentation.

"Gwyneth Paltrow does not read my books, as far as I know. Sadly, and oddly, the whole thing made me think less of Gwyneth Paltrow. I feel like there's bad blood between us," Fowler deadpanned with a sort of wounded sigh Tuesday night at a presentation sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Writer's Garret and the City of Mesquite.

One of the rare few authors who have succeeded in both literary fiction and science fiction, she was in town on an NEA-sponsored tour of Fahrenheit 451, talking about Ray Bradbury and science fiction and censorship and dystopias and the McCarthy era and the year 1953.

But the Q&A after Tuesday's event gave an audience heavily salted with writers an opportunity to pick Fowler's writer's brain.

While she credits her long-time editor for making everything she does better, Fowler grins as she recalls her literary-fiction editor's recoil at the news that Fowler's science fiction work had earned a prestigious Nebula award. It was as if, she said, there was a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in place - and the perception that a writer had to choose between the two genres, not slip from one to the other and back.

"It's as if my editor spends her whole life trying to clean the science fiction off me, and I just head straight back to the trough," Fowler said. "(Of the first Nebula win) she said, 'Is there any way we can keep that quiet?'"

By the time Wit's End was published, Fowler won another Nebula -- and the more than grudging respect of her converted editor.

Karen Joy Fowler recalls a longing from childhood for the promised Jetson future of space-pack travel and robotically-driven vehicles and heads that evolved to accommodate larger brains.
"The future is just not what it used to be, in my opinion," she said, evoking chuckles from the group in what felt like a writing salon. "We were told we were moving into a time of enormous leisure ... I was quite looking forward to that ... and if you think I'm bitter about the jetpacks, you have no idea how bitter I am about the leisure."

Her own childhood, she admits, was a particularly flawed background for a writer in that it was a remarkably happy one that didn't lend itself to "tortured artist" status.

Something of a role model for other women who put their professional life on hold to concentrate on raising a family only to prepare to jumpstart it when the kids reach school age, Fowler recalled breaking the news to her husband that instead of becoming a breadwinner, she was going to become a writer.

Like her favorite character in children's literature, the mournful Eeyore, her husband took her announcement in stride. "Like Eeyore, when you tell him his hopes and dreams are going to be crushed, he's not surprised, because he never really thought it would work out anyway," she said. The one fly in the ointment? The classic work-at-home dilemma - people think you have time to spare.

Fowler talked frankly about the writer's tendency to self-censor out of fear that a beloved parent will read harsh material and think less of their adult child. She recounted presenting her busy 31-year-old son with an audio version of her "Jane Austen Book Club." He declined to finish listening to it, telling his mother that while he was aware writers sometimes drew from their own experiences and he hoped she'd never experienced sexual abuse like her character in the opening pages, as his mother's child, he wasn't ready for it. "I really don't want to think you'd make something like that up," he said, apologetic.

Although she showed early promise in publishing, throughout much of her formative years Fowler was a "runner up," a not-quite-good-enough status she turned to her own emotional advantage. "It made me so angry and so determined to be successful," she said, recalling how stacks of rejection letters became a sort of badge of honor. She brings them along sometimes when she speaks to writers, she said. "Look at how many people tried to stop me," she tells herself.

So this writer's favorite book? "The Once and Future King," by T.H. White. White's ability to swing from one kind of writing voice to another pleases her - and helps her as a writer when she wants to follow intuition instead of tradition. "Every (writing) rule I've ever been told has been broken by White in my favorite book of all time," she said.

Other advice for fellow authors? Every book gets harder and harder to write. And just because it's "done," doesn't mean it's done. "When I turn (a manuscript in) I think it's done. It's not. I get a 7-page letter that says it's not,"Fowler said.

That's just the beginning, and where the writer digs in and makes decisions, she said, noting that she accepts just a percentage of those perceived problems and works around many of the others. "Workshops and editors are good at telling you it's a problem, you're not very good - they're not good at telling you how to fix it," she said.

As the event organizer headed toward the stage, Karen Joy Fowler amused her audience with a paraphrase, and I will use it as well:

"In the words of Jane Austen, it appears I have delighted you long enough."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Carl Sagan and Pomegranate Thinking

I just love this. It really struck a chord in me -- I think I live like this.

I consider it pomegranate thinking: Carl Sagan - "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

What waits to be known is what keeps me loving what I have done for a living for two decades. I write. Everything and everyone is a story, and the questions come spilling out. Life is not always beautiful, but life is always fascinating.

There's not many people I could send this quote to, though. I went down my email list and realized that most people look at knowledge like a course you take for 25 years, and then for the most part, you're done. You know what you need to to successfully navigate the known world you live in -- there's not much need to change how you think or add to the wisdom.

And when you think about it, that's certainly the most comfortable existence. Sometimes it would be EASIER to see life like that, too.

I don't mean abandoning precious life tenets. I don't try on a different faith every year, for example. The Christianity that comforted me in my childhood is still the foundation for my middle age. I still like the Golden Rule for how to do unto others. I still like to wear Crocs, even if their fashionability wanes. I still think black makes me look less chunky.

But some things are open for debate, up for suggestions. I explore new writers, new TV shows, new candidates. New restaurants.

I have quite enjoyed two recent trips to a place called fivetwelve college tea house in Waxahachie. In a large rehabbed Victorian home, this unusual tea room features the culinary genius of Rhonnie Tompkins, an Australian expat who is unsatisfied with the usual chicken salad and fruit salad. There's none of what I consider Casablanca cooking ("Round up the usual suspects.") Her chicken salad is crafted with chicken breasts poached in white wine and juniper berries and a delicate blend of seasonings, including curry. Tompkins' fruit salad has 10 or more fruits on it, depending on the season and what's in her yard and at the Waxahachie Downtown Farmer's Market. There's fresh figs in July, and pomegranate in September.

As I write this, I am picking away at a slightly underripe pomegranate from my own front yard. The tree's boughs were so laden, they had to be trimmed so as to stop thwacking the cars driving under it en route to the carport and garage. Some years we don't even harvest them; they just hang there until they're overripe.

There are easier fruit to eat than pomegranates. Fruits that don't require an engineering plan to get at the good stuff. Peel the orange, you're done. Munch away. Seedless grapes -- just pluck them off the stem and it's ambrosia.

No, Punica granatum are complicated things. To get to the 600 little arils inside requires patience and a plan, and can hardly be done without something of a mess. The best things in life are like that, I think - requiring patience, a plan, and something of a mess.

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." Or tasted. Or experienced.

You can have the same fruit salad everyone else is having, or you can expand your horizons.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Author Q and A: Bob Schieffer, author of Bob Schieffer's America

A note from J. Louise Larson of The Writing Porch: Many thanks to Katie McKee of Putnam's for providing me with this conversation with Bob Schieffer.

I loved this book, and learned several things. Two of these things were revelations: first of all, I now feel very close to Bob Schieffer, because when I lived in an idyllic town on Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, I lived next door to the cousin of his friend and mentor, Eric Sevareid. Sort of like Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon, my brush with a brush with fame.

Second, after years of being known among my writing peers as the Queen of Death because I love writing obituary pieces (not that I'm happy to see people go, you understand), I don't feel so alone. Schieffer does, too. (See my obit piece on Dr. Jack Kelley here.

To this I add a third revelation: comprised of pithy little essayettes, this book is fantastic bathroom reading. But it's hard to put down, so keep it in another room of the house, unless you have bathrooms to spare ...

Author: TV newsman Bob Schieffer
Book: Bob Schieffer's America (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, September 2008, ISBN: 978-0-399-15518-5 Price: $24.95

How do you describe this book?
"It’s a collection of the commentaries I began writing in 1994 to tack on the end of our Face the Nation broadcasts. Basically, they’re just snapshots of my thoughts along the way. We found about seven hundred of them and then boiled that down to about 171. One of the sobering things about going back and looking at your work over so many years is that you realize not every piece stands the test of time. I hope readers will see that we’ve tried to pick out the ones that did."

How did the notion of writing these essays originate?
"It all started the Sunday after Richard Nixon died. The show’s roundtable that day had included several former Nixon aides, and I thought the program needed a button—a few lines to sum up what we had been discussing and to put things in context. I offered a few thoughts on Nixon’s passing and concluded by saying he left the White House in disgrace but left the Earth with dignity. In the days that followed I got a tremendous amount of mail in response to that little bit of commentary. A couple of weeks later I did another button and again got a lot of mail. Then we started doing the commentaries whenever we had time—probably once or twice a month—and they, too, got a really nice reaction. In fact, we were getting more reaction from the commentaries than any other thing we did (and this was in the days before e-mail)."

What was the reaction of the higher-ups at CBS?
"After I started doing them on a regular basis I realized I might not have the authority to do so. After all, the network had very strict rules on commentary. Obviously, we’re not allowed to put personal opinions in the news stories we do. But nobody said anything and I figured if I were not allowed to do this someone would call and tell me to stop. Then one day in 1996 I won a Sigma Delta Chi award for national commentary and all of a sudden I started getting calls from the bosses in New York saying keep it up, keep it going. And that’s what we did."

As you point out, this all started in the days before e-mail. Do you see a difference between the comments viewers sent back then using snail-mail versus the ones they send in now electronically?
"What we found is that when people disagree they do so in much harsher language when using email than they did when writing letters. And I’m convinced a great many letters were never even sent. I’m sure that on many occasions, when people disagreed with a commentary and got steamed up, they’d sit down, write a letter and then wad it up and throw it in the trash. But in the age of e-mail they simply press the “send” button. And I assure you, we often get a full explanation of what’s on their minds. Oddly enough, we probably get more positive comments about the commentaries than we do negative ones."

Were there any surprises for you as you looked at the commentaries you’d written more than a decade ago?
"One of the most interesting aspects of this, and a most humbling experience for me, was to go back and look at how my commentaries evolved over time on issues such as the war in Iraq. Like a lot of people after 9/11, I began believing it was the right thing to do. We were told Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and I thought we had no choice but to go in and disarm him. We were dealing with a man who had killed his own daughter’s husbands and gassed his own people so it wasn’t hard to imagine he’d be someone who’d use any weapon at his disposal. When we found out the intelligence was wrong my ideas about the war in Iraq changed. It was interesting to read the commentaries and see how my thinking evolved, and I purposely included some of the early ones in the book to show what that process looked like."

You’re particularly fond of the obituary pieces. Why?
"Like Ronald Reagan, I have a love of obits. He used to joke it was the first section of the paper he’d go to because he enjoyed the pleasure of not seeing his name there. I’ve reached the age where I feel the same. And in this day and age, when most news is bad news, it’s on the obituary page that you see the most positive news in the newspaper. You read about people who actually did something; who they were and how they came to do whatever that “something” was. Some of the most inspiring stories I’ve read over the years were on the obituary page. One of my favorites was the woman who was a member of the Flying Wallendas. She lost her leg to cancer but kept on training and eventually walked the high wire on an artificial limb. I found her story truly inspiring. I also included a piece about William F. Buckley. When I was a young reporter I found myself in a seminar with him and took issue with something he said. Then I thought to myself, here I am arguing with the number one thinker and debater of our time. With a twinkle in his eye he let me down gently. He was interested in making his point, rather than picking on someone who wasn’t his equal."

In the preface you write that in these essays you’ve tried to follow the rule laid down by your great teacher, Eric Sevareid. What was the rule he taught you?
Eric believed that the first duty of an analyst or someone writing commentary is to explain rather than advocate. He had great insight about both human nature and the course of events, and the majority of his commentaries were attempts to explain why people did what they did. That’s basically what I’ve always tried to do. My objective has never been to get people to agree with me but rather to say, “I’ve never thought about it that way,” or, “For the first time I understand the issue.” That was my goal for the commentaries, and they were written from that point of view. That’s what I learned from Sevareid.

You end the book by reflecting back on your career as a reporter and the hard lessons you’ve learned about life along the way. You also offer a list of things you’ve come to believe vis-à-vis politics and government. What are the things you’ve come to believe?
"I think we have learned from Vietnam and our experience in Iraq that we can help countries become democracies but we can’t impose democracy on them. In the end, the people have to do it for themselves, we can’t do it for them. I think we have to remember that as the world’s most powerful nation our greatest influence on people comes from serving as an example and practicing what we preach. We can’t talk about democracy, its freedom, and how important it is if the world finds out, for example, that we’re bribing newsmen to spout the company line or employing secret prisons. And we can never allow torture be part of national policy. Our job is to make sure we let people know that’s what the other guys do. Weapons were not what won the Cold War. What won the Cold War was that people in the East looked across the Iron Curtain and saw a better life there. It was a life their government wasn’t providing for them and they wanted it. And that’s when the Berlin Wall came down. As I looked back over all these commentaries, those were the themes that came home to me."

You come from a great era of TV news reporting in this country—a time when CBS was known as the Tiffany Network and you were part of a team that included Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Daniel Schorr, George Herman and Walter Cronkite. You’re also one of the few reporters to have covered all four of the major Washington beats. What are your thoughts as you look back on news today compared to then?
"There’s a lot more of it. What has really changed is the Internet, which is the first vehicle to take news around the world that has no editor. Even the worst newspaper has an editor. Now stuff gets on the Internet and you don’t know where it comes from or if it’s true, false, parody or hoax. Mainstream journalism has to be the place where even if people don’t agree with our editorials, they know they can come to us for the facts. That’s what our job is. On 9/11 we spent most of our time knocking down rumors that had popped up on the Internet. It used to be if your competitor made a mistake, they’d correct it and you’d ignore it. We couldn’t afford to ignore the mistakes others made on 9/11 because doing so would have resulted in mass hysteria. We’re dealing with a world where news gets out. If we can’t knock it down when it’s not true, there’s a real danger in what can happen. We now have access to more information than at any time in our history. It sometimes seems our wisdom in how we handle it is not exactly equal to the amount of information out there. That’s what we, as mainstream journalists, are dealing with right now."

J. Louise Larson writes The Writing Porch for and about writers and writing. Contact her at jackielarsonwrites (at)

Sheila Scarborough, Freelance Writer: Tell us about you

Name: Sheila Scarborough

Hometown: Round Rock, Texas

Bio: "I'm a full-time freelance writer specializing in travel, NHRA drag racing and Web 2.0/social media."

Publications your work has appeared in: "National Geographic Traveler, Texas Highways, Transitions Abroad,, and I write the award-winning Family Travel Guide on the BootsnAll Travel Network, I'm one of three authors on the Perceptive Travel blog, my drag racing work is mostly on Fast Machines, and I write about social media for Every Dot Connects."

How you got your start in freelance writing: "When I retired from the Navy in spring 2006, I thought long and hard about what I would enjoy as much as the service. I love to write and I love to travel, so I decided to figure out how to make a living at it. I bought a stack of books on freelancing and started a blog, then just kept pushing. When print editors ignored me at first, I kept blogging, and found that online work is my preference. I hate waiting a year between a pitch and seeing the final article in magazines.

"Now, suddenly, my diverse online skill set is in demand; the ground has shifted. When an area of interest calls to me, I'm unafraid of looking foolish and I jump in. What are they going to do, deploy me to the Indian Ocean for six months? Oh, wait, already did that...

Some of your favorite kinds of articles to do: "Quirky travel pieces, really zero-ing in on the unique aspects of a place like its food, history, art or music. I like drag racing stories because it's a small community with lots of history between teams and families. Articles about Web 2.0 and social media, and why my fellow writers and communicators need to stop stalling and 'get it,' are always stimulating (I've been writing about this in one form or another since I tackled network-centric warfare issues while on active duty.)"

A few of your favorite interview subjects of all time: "Ashley Force, NHRA drag racing Funny Car driver. One of the Frag Dolls; an all-female video gaming team. The owner and employees at Round Rock (TX) Donuts."

What your writing routine looks like: "I skim a variety of sites, blogs and my local newspaper first thing in the morning, then my email, then I start blogging and working on social media projects. I invariably forget lunch and wonder why I'm cranky at 2 pm. The hardest thing is to stop working at night and pay attention to my family; I'm a night owl and love the quiet, late times at night."

Writers whose work you admire: "Anne Lamott, Tom Wolfe, Rolf Potts, Susan Orlean, Herman Wouk, Wendy Perrin, Heather Armstrong (,) Bill Bryson and William Least Heat-Moon."

What you're working on next: "Teaching Web 2.0 workshops and going to China for China BloggerCon. I love tech issues because many of the tech people are curious, fun, demand excellence and are passionate about a better world. They challenge me. In terms of travel, I'm thinking about an East Texas road trip article. Too many writers go for the obvious in Texas, but I like to find the unknown gems. I like Louisiana for the same reason, and I'm becoming a fan of Oklahoma and Kansas. Anyone can do a 'My Secret Tuscany.' Gimme the hard stuff.

Insert your questions here: "What's Jackie's favorite 'secret gem' in East Texas? :) Is the Gilmer Yamboree worth the trip?"

Jackie's Secret Gem of East Texas:

Easy question.

On the way into Gladewater, there is a greasy spoon that has a tiny main dining area, the smoking section, where everybody eats and talks, and a large, empty-ish sort of dining area for non-smokers, where I dined completely on my own in some kind of time warp.

On the wall, there are spectacularly tacky little shrines to stars of the 50s -- who, it just so happened, all died tragically young. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, I think I'm missing one. Maybe Buddy Holly. It was disorienting, like stumbling into a parallel universe or at least an episode of the NPR show, This American Life with Ira Glass, the sort of thing that makes you believe there could be alien life in outer space.

Thanks, Sheila.

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson writes for and about writers and writing, and can be reached at jackielarsonwrites (at)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Corrections (Does Jonathan Franzen have these problems?)

Does this sound familiar, either to writers or editors?
A young writer recently complained that when he handed in copy, the material returned to him resembled nothing like what he turned in.
His complaint was that the finished stories did indeed read tighter and flowed easier -- but that he was missing a chance to help with the changes, and not getting any feedback.
Here's what I'd say:
If your copy is being rearranged big time, a couple things: First, count yourself blessed to still be writing for them. If you still are, that means you've at least got the basic research in and they're willing to rework -- and you still have the income source. Sometimes if there's a lot that needs done, they'll write the writer off. I had a publisher who insisted on it.
Second, look at what they did, sentence by sentence. Next time you think you're done, put it to that test they used, and do those things to it. The other thing the editor could have done is said to you (irritated or not): "This is completely inside out and unacceptable. It needs this, this, and this. Fix it." For some mags, that's their policy.
Either they didn't have time for that, or it's not their policy, or they didn't think you could do it on your own, or they don't know you well enough to know you could on their short deadline, or they have someone who is free to fix things up and they're okay with it. They may know there's a learning curve to writing their style and they're willing to cut you some slack.
One thing you might do is ask, politely, proactively, positively: "I noticed there were some changes made to my story. Can we go over them so I'll have a better idea for my next piece of what you're looking for?" (which beats "How dare you change my story!" cold ...)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Author Q and A: Mother and daughter writing team Cheryl and MacKenzie Moeller

The book: Lexi's Homeschool Diary
The authors: Cheryl and MacKenzie Moeller, mother and daughter
Bio: I am a homeschool mom of 6. Bob and I have been married 29 years.I'm a stand up comic, syndicated humor columnist, and author.
Other books you've worked on: I've co-authored two books on marriage which includeMarriage Minutes (Moody Press) and For Better, For Worse, For Keeps (MarriageVine Press). I also co-authored a book on motherhood called "I'm Glad I'm on Planet Mom."
What made you decide to write a children's book? I've been wanting to write children's books for 15 years and just never got around to it. MacKenzie started writing inher journal last January because she had run out of books that she liked. I had told her to write the next book she would read. And she really did do it!
Why write a book with your daughter? I found her daily journal on the table. I told her right away that I thought she really had written something others would want to read - that this was a book.
How did you decide on your main character, Lexi?I guess the main character is a lot like MacKenzie. She's sweet, adventurous, adorable and funny. She's someone you would want to take on a vacation with you.
What challenges did you face with this book? MacKenzie got writer's block at one point that lasted for a month.
In the end, we had a professional editor (my sister Cinda) do the editing on the book. I didn't want to have even one quotation mark in the wrong place and she really did a great job.
What advice would you have for other writers/would-be writers?
You need to get a great illustrator to illustrate your book. We worked with our friend Linda Gredy.
Also remember that writers write. But most people that want to write just talk about writing and don't actually write. It takes talents and gifts, but it also takes discipline. You write one word at a time like you play the piano. A book is a lot of words. Start with articles and then move up to books.
But you can do it if you put your mind to it and overlook other distractions.
Any special tips for working on projects with your kids? Realize they are kids. They are not going to be able to go on for the long haul. Give them breaks and bribes.
What projects are next? I am writing several nonfiction books on marriage.
I am also writing Homeschool Your Preschooler on $1 a Day, which is non-fiction. I am writing that book because a lot of people can't afford preschool curriculum this fall with rising costs of food and gas. The other projects I am working on is No Presents for Christmas, which is a picture book with lots of beautiful illustrations. My illustrator for those two books is Susan R. Smith and she is working on some amazing illustrations.

Author: MacKenzie Moeller
Bio: I'm a homeschooled third grader.I like to swim and ice skate. I like to do both of those outside the most. I like to make dinner. I know how to make pizza.
I am nine. I am the youngest of six kids.I have two dogs. One is a Golden Lab named Katie. The other one is half lab and half Mastiff and his name is Rudy. Rudy is my brother's dog. I want to be a hairdresser when I grow up. I see a lot of people out there who need hairdos.
What was fun about this project? I like to get lost in my writing. This was a long project so I some days when I wrote that is the only subject I did the whole day.
What do you think about your character, Lexi? I thought Lexi was fun and funny.
What was difficult about this project? It was such a long project. I had a hard time hanging in there until the end.I got writer's block about three quarters of the way through. So I took one month off. My mom wanted to know what I would need to get rid of my writer's block. I told her a bag of Oreos. She wanted me know if it was double-stuff or regular. I said regular. And she got me two bags!! And I starting writing again.
What advice would you have for other kids who think they might want to write a book? Make sure you have fun with it. Writing shouldn't be work.
I hope kids enjoy reading Lexi's Homeschool Diary.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Writing Porch Author Q and A: Linda M. Fossen

Editor’s note: Author Linda M. Fossen names her abuser in her book. I have deleted specifics of his identity here, but it is revealed in her book.

Author: Linda M. Fossen

Book: “Out of the Miry Clay: Freedom from Childhood Sexual Abuse” Self-published, 2008, 199 pages, paperback

Author Bio: Linda Fossen’s horrific account of 10 years of childhood sexual abuse is riveting. “Naturally, this polluted my whole concept of God, father, love and trust. I grew up trying to love God but always feeling such ambivalence towards Him. As a child I had prayed so many times to be rescued from my horrible situation and when those prayers went seemingly unanswered, I felt complete betrayal not only from my abuser but from God,” she said.
Linda’s accused abuser remains in children’s ministry. “We confronted him about the abuse and although he admitted to the abuse, he did not apologize. His only response was ‘Who are you going to tell because you could ruin my ministry?’” she recalls.

“This is not a ‘get even’ book but a frank and compelling look at a dirty secret that has been hiding in the evangelical churches for years. I want to open up a dialogue and make it okay for people to come forward and talk about their abuse within the church setting,” Fossen said.

Full disclosure: I attended high school with Linda, and we have recently reconnected. I am amazed by her candor, and found her book difficult to put down. Read it and weep.

What the book is About: This is the story about the carnage that sexual abuse leaves in the heart of every child. It is a story about a preacher’s daughter in search of a loving Heavenly Father who would give me the courage to forgive and trust again. A Heavenly Father so unlike my earthly father that the difference would literally baffle me for years.

Why did you write this book? I actually wrote the book quite by “accident”. I never intended to write a book – these were the secrets I was going to carry with me to the grave. After years of stuffing the pain, I had a “crash and burn” experience after a work injury ended my 23-year career. Within a matter of months, my whole life was turned upside down. My heart shattered into a million pieces and I had no place to stuff the memories or the pain any longer.
I went through severe depression and the full extent of my abuse came back to me in full force as I began to have flashbacks and relive the trauma of my abuse. I could see no way that I would ever live a normal life again and thought that I would end up in a mental institution. I wanted to die because life had ceased to be worth living.

My therapist suggested that I journal and I resisted because I did not ever want to chance anyone reading my most private pain. When I finally did journal what came out was not in diary format but in story form. I was perplexed but still did not ever dream that I would publish a book – that was preposterous!
The book was literally born out of my pain and my journey towards my freedom. When I finally was able to let go of my abuse and realized that I could not longer fix my dysfunctional abuser, I found the ability to forgive and find my freedom. Once I experienced this freedom, I simply could not keep it to myself. I had to share my story – matter what the cost.

This book is very personal -- what was it like to get so personal? This book is extremely personal and it was very painful to write. I was literally putting my pain into words and it was the most gut-wrenching experience of my life. When I was so desperate to find peace from the tormenting pain of my abuse, I read every book on sexual abuse I could find.
So many of them were written from the standpoint of the child who grew up with alcoholic parents and broken homes with physical violence.

Although I found the stories to be inspiring, I could not relate to them because my family was nothing like this. We were the “perfect family” – the one where abuse is never supposed to happen. Because my abuse was so severe it was frustrating to read books that just said “I was abused” and then the author would not go into any detail of their abuse. They really did not offer a blueprint on how to get rid of the pain. I would always think to myself, “This book can’t apply to me because they don’t know what I went through.”
I wanted to tell the story the way it really happened with enough graphic detail to let the abused person who read it know that they could relate to me. It was very important for me to use my real name and my family’s real names.

I had lived for decades in shame and for me to hide behind a pseudonym would not allow me to walk out in freedom. My abuser told me that if I told the secret God would send me to hell and I want other victims to know that they can tell their stories of abuse and live afterwards without the fear of repercussion from God or anyone else. In order to do that, I had to get real with the story, the details and the names.

How did you get this book published? We pitched the book to several publishers and got a lot of rejections. Some felt that this was a topic that did not apply to the evangelical Christian community (like what rock did they crawl out from under?).

Others wanted me to do it anonymously and wanted to protect my abuser’s reputation and I was unwilling to do that. So we ended up self-publishing and I am happy with the decision because it gave me complete freedom to write the book exactly the way I wanted to write it.

It was quite ironic that the people who helped me to publish the book were friends of my abuser for many years. The woman is a professional editor who has seen many of her books become NY Times Bestsellers. She was impressed with my writing ability and recognized that the book had the potential to reach millions of hurting people who suffer in silence. She is my greatest fan and mentor in this unfamiliar territory of being a first-time author.

What was the biggest challenge for you about this book? Being willing to publish it. I had already written the story as part of my healing process but I had to overcome my fear of publishing the book when my father is still alive. I had to overcome my childhood fear of breaking the promise that I made to my abuser never to tell the secret. My abuser scared me within an inch of my life never to tell the secret. I vowed to keep the secret and felt it was my duty.

As a child, I feared him and that childhood fear kept me silent for decades. I realize that I have nothing to gain and everything to lose by publishing this book but I simply could not keep silent when there were so many other millions of people who suffer in silence. Knowing that my book might help even one person made it worth the personal cost to me.
What's your favorite kind of writing and why? Up until this book I did not do much writing at all, I considered myself more of a public speaker than a writer. I am a novice when it comes to writing and I never considered the idea of being an author. Because of my injury, I am unable to work a “normal job.” I have now figured out “what I want to be when I grow up - and that is an author.” I find a certain enjoyment in being able to tell a story and make the reader feel as though they are experiencing it with you. I am most content when I am writing.

What advice would you give other writers? Write straight from your heart and your gut. In order for a book to be authentic and real, you have to have lived it. It has to be something that you give birth to so to speak. It is the sharing of your innermost thoughts and feelings that will make the reader feel a part of your experience.

What projects do you have coming up? I am actually working on a follow-up to this book, which is my husband’s amazing life story. He was one semester away from becoming a Junior High Social Studies teacher and instead ended up serving 20 years in prison for triple murder.
I married him in prison and spent 18 years waiting for him to come home. I want to tell the story of what it was like behind those walls.

Prison is unlike any place on earth. It left an indelible mark on my heart to have come to know and love some of the most heinous criminals and understand that in the eyes of God, I was no better than any of them. It rocked my evangelical upbringing to its core and made me come to realize that my whole belief system was so shallow and full of platitudes. Things that I thought I believed were challenged when I was face to face with life and death situations.

Linda's question: Why would I out my abuser at this late stage in his ministry? Would I be doing more harm than good to the evangelical community? I know that I run the risk of offending some Christians because of my forthrightness in bringing to light a subject that has long been taboo within the evangelical church. When the Catholic Church scandals broke, I saw how so many evangelicals smuggled viewed the issue as “not affecting us.” I want to blow that myth to pieces.

The research shows that a child is much more likely to be sexually abused in a rigidly religious home than in one in which there is no mention of God. I think there is something wrong with this picture. Unless people come forward and blow the whistle and say “enough is enough” the statistics just keep growing.

I have forgiven my abuser for what he has done to me but that does not mean that I am required to keep his dirty secret. I will no longer carry the shame and guilt that was never mine to carry in the beginning. I want to show others by my example that there is nothing to be ashamed of in admitting that you were abused as a child. The thing that is shameful is that someone would do such hideous things to a vulnerable child.
What are the statistics on abuse? It is estimated that there are 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America today. Statistics estimate that 30-33% of boys are sexually abused and 38-40% of girls by the time they reach 18. The statistics show overwhelmingly that the abuser is not the stranger down the street but a person the child trusts and is close to.

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson interviews authors for other writers to watch, listen and learn from. To be considered for a Writing Porch Q&A, contact J. Louise Larson at jackielarsonwrites (at)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Writing Porch Author Q and A Steve Martini

The Latest Book: Shadow of Power, 400 pp hardcover, William Morrow

About the Author: Best-selling author Steve Martini was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Bay Area and Southern California. An honors graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, Martini’s first career was in journalism. He worked as a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles and as a correspondent at the California State Capitol in Sacramento, specializing in legal issues, before taking his law degree at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in 1974. During his law career he worked as a legislative representative for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, the State Bar of California , and served as special counsel to the California Victims of Violent Crimes Program. He has worked as an administrative hearing officer, a supervising hearing officer, an administrative law judge, and for a time served as Deputy Director of the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

In the 1980’s Martini began writing fiction as a hobby but with an eye toward a second career. His first attempt at a novel, THE SIMEON CHAMBER was picked up by an agent and sold within two weeks of its completion. It was published in 1987. COMPELLING EVIDENCE, his second novel introduced the character, attorney Paul Madriani, and was published by Putnam in 1992. A national bestseller, that novel earned Martini a critical and popular following. New York Times bestsellers PRIME WITNESS (1993), UNDUE INFLUENCE (1994), THE JUDGE (1996), and THE ATTORNEY ( 2000) each featured the series character Madriani.

THE LIST (1997), and CRITICAL MASS (1998) were departures from the court room, legal-thriller genre. CRITICAL MASS addressed issues of terrorism and the threat from weapons of mass destruction. These were followed by THE ARRAIGNMENT, DOUBLE TAP, and most recently SHADOW OF POWER, all within the Paul Madriani series and all bestsellers.
To date, two network mini-series have been produced and broadcast based on Martini’s works, UNDUE INFLUENCE on CBS, and THE JUDGE on NBC. Martini makes his home in the Pacific Northwest.

What made you pick this book to write? The Idea for Shadow of Power came as a result of research I had been conducting for another work. I noticed that the original language of slavery that had been crafted by the founding generation remained in the Constitution still visible even though it had been repealed following the Civil War and was dead letter law. I began to think about this over a period of months and years and ultimately the idea for the novel came to me.

What do you love about this book? Perhaps my favorite aspect of this book is its realism set against the political backdrop of a Presidential campaign and a Supreme Court that is badly divided with the high stakes of future nominations to that Court hanging in the balance. It is here that fiction meets reality.

What are you hoping readers find interesting about this book? Without question it would be the trial process. This is true as regards all of my novels in the Paul Madriani series. It is the trial and the legal strategy that propels the story and invariably leads to the twists and turns and ultimate resolution.

How do you make your characters come alive? Through dialogue; you must develop a good ear for the spoken word. Unless your characters speak with authenticity they will not achieve the realism necessary the carry the story. The goal is to bring the reader to the point where he or she is reading your novel with the air of plausibility one my employ when reading the daily newspaper. The difference is that dialogue in the form of direct quotes in newsprint is often dead. In fiction the illusive ability to breath life into these words on the page is the secret to crafting good fiction.

What writers do you like and why? Elmore Leonard for his ability to write the best dialogue in the business; Scott Fitzgerald for his artistic and literary masterpiece The Great Gatsby; Scott Turow for his wonderful characterizations and John Grisham for his good story telling and generosity in recognizing my novel “Compelling Evidence” at a critical stage in my career. Apart from novelists I would be remiss not to mention the new generation of wonderful historians all of whom have given me wondrous hours of reading and enjoyment, from the late Stephen Ambrose to David McCullough and Joseph Ellis.

What advice would you give to writers hoping for success? Continue to hone your craft and to learn early on that the art of good fiction is to be found in revision and rewriting. Develop a good ear for dialogue. If you need direction in this area, some of the best dialogue is to be found in early novels, even some mysteries of the early 20th Century. Also screen plays written by notable screen writers are rich sources of information on how to write good dialogue and how to develop character from strong dialogue.

What projects do you have coming up? I am contracted for one more Madriani novel, after than I have several projects currently in mind and on which I have begun long term research. Beyond that I would not be prepared to disclose this information.

See more about Steve Martini on his website:

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson interviews authors for other writers to watch, listen and learn from. To be considered for a Writing Porch Q&A, contact J. Louise Larson at jackielarsonwrites (at)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thanks, Jackie. Nice to meet you, too, Jackie. Likewise, Jackie.

I remember learning at the age of 12 or so that the secret of success was using someone's name in conversation. We're in love with our own identities, so it stands to reason we love to hear our name.

Right? That's how it went?

Only not. I'm encountering a trend in young writers -- overeagerness to overattribute.

The Larson Dictionary & Stylebook definition of overattribution: To hammer someone over the head with their last name, repeatedly, within the confines of a story. Ouch. OUCH!

A woman I reported with in my early days said her college journalism prof told her to imagine she was being whapped with a quirt across her knuckles every time she overused someone's name.

"It was great," Schlmiel said.
"The first thing we did was have tea," Schlmiel said.

The extra name usage is generally slipped in in the note transcription process. No one sets out to use the same name in every paragraph. But believe me, it happens. Now, imagine you're the subject of the article, only you HATE your last name, because it sounds like slang. So how much more do you hate the rhythmical insertion of your last name at every opportunity?

Make changing up attribution one of your closing routines on a piece. There's spell-check, length-check, fact-check, sound-check.

Now there's duplication-check. Look for repetitions (and remove them!). And if Schlmiel is going around and around in your story's head, get it out. Sub in "he said." or "the Harvard grad said."

And probably if there's this big a ring to it, you need to de-quotize some of the interview and serve it up as fact.

And I haven't even talked about the quaint but irritating use of Mr., Ms. and Mrs. at evey turn, like the Dallas Morning News insists upon.

"Mr. Lecter escaped custody this morning. He had been jailed - and muzzled - for seven serial murders." See? Doesn't that sound odd?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!

Everyone knows free publicity is invaluable when it's time to promote a book. Magazine and newspaper writers get interviewed occasionally as all the media mix together. There's radio, TV, the internet, newspapers, magazines. And parties! And forums!

So how ready are you for your close-up? (My apologies for botching the classic line written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, from the fabulous movie, "Sunset Boulevard.")

I spent a few years in public relations and have become something of a student of promotion. In the book I co-authored, "The FabJob Guide to Become a Party Planner" (FabJob Publishing, 2006) I spent the lion's share of my effort on how to promote a fledgling business.

Additionally, I once spent time in radio and TV while dreaming of a broadcast career like Oprah's, so I spent some time learning how to interview, and have hosted some of television's most lacklustre interviews on record, as my friend and former producer Susan Baker can attest;)

A book, or a writing career, is a business. No matter how much we DON'T like sales and promotions, the publishers are less and less taking the lead on publicity. Take advantage of every shred of help offered, naturally -- but also take responsibility for your own work's success.

That means being ready to answer questions in such a way that your book sounds fascinating, you sound interesting, and both are worth reading.

Here's a few tips on being ready to be interviewed:

  1. Talk in sentence form. Have a little story. Be ready with point form outlines that can lead you to paragraphs. Practice on your sister, your mom, your dog.
  2. If it's an audio interview, and you want people to like you (this can be helpful), put a smile on your face. It will show in your voice, and make you sound warmer. If your material is serious, there's no need to be jolly, of course.
  3. If you're asked questions about facts, give the listener added value by telling what's important about that, or what you love about that, or why that's terrible, or challenging, or surprising, or relevant, or why people should care about that.
  4. But don't go on and on and on. Make what you say count, so if they want more, they can ask for more. Look for cues that it's someone else's turn to talk. This can be particularly important in casual conversation.
  5. Remember what else you want to promote -- your blog, the stores that have your book, where to find your columns on line, the papers you write for.
  6. Make a picture of you available (put some effort into this, but a pic taken by a friend will d0 - natural light helps with amateur photography, so take it outdoors if you need to.)
  7. Have a scanned JPG, low and high resolution both, available of your book cover.
  8. If you're going to be on TV, don't wear white. Be impeccably groomed. Avoid nervous or unconscious gestures. (Get a friend to do a mock interview and tape it -- find your Achilles heel.)
  9. Study other peoples' interviews, so you can see what looks/sounds good and what doesn't. Feel free to use them for practice.
  10. Work on a press release, and have it available to tuck in sample books or online and in MS Word format for emailing. With permission of my friend, author Cheryl Moeller, I'll share a before-and-after of one with you soon.
  11. Put links to your work/website in the signature of your email. Unbelievable how many people have checked mine out.
  12. And that thing about we all stand on the shoulders of giants? I believe it, so remember to thank the giant! Be grateful, out loud, to those who got you where they are.
  13. Read something from the Writing Porch list of book promotion books. See the link here:
  14. Have a cocktail blurb available at any moment: this is two or three sentences about you, your book, your work, in a nutshell.
Here's mine.
The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson is a Texas-based writer whose work has appeared in major magazines and newspapers. She is the author of The FabJob Guide to Party Planning. She is the editor of The Ennis Journal and a contributor to The Waxahachie Daily Light.

The Writing Porch Author Q&A: Brie Hart

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson interviews authors for other writers to watch, listen and learn from. To be considered for a Writing Porch Q&A, contact J. Louise Larson at jackielarsonwrites (at)

Author: Brie Hart is a nontraditional student studying communications in New York City. She’s also the founder and editor-in-chief of the Web magazine, – The Ultimate Resource Guide for Nontraditional Students.

Book in progress: An untitled memoir about her experience of going back to college over 30 years old. "The memoir is about the challenges I faced when I decided to go back to college three years ago at 32 years old, both in my home life and school life," she said.

"This book started out as a journal to 'tell' someone what I was going through; it was like therapy. My husband didn’t understand my challenges and I didn’t know anyone who was in the same situation as me."

Even though she had read over 50 books to prepare herself for college as a nontraditional student, many of the books were not written for older students because they didn’t address the issues that many nontraditional students face (i.e. socialization, juggling family life and the effects of an academically dormant brain). "I want to show not only the brightside of college, but also the downside, to eliminate the element of surprise," Hart said.

"The most challenging thing about this book was when I realized that the world would know the inner workings of my mind. My actions don’t always represent the internal struggle that I may have before coming to a decision or making a choice. Since I’ve put my thoughts and actions on paper, my friends may finally get to know the true me," she said.
"I’ve always loved to provide people with information, and what better way to provide information if someone can live the past few years of my life while I’m in a classroom? A reader can take what they need from it," she said.

An outgoing person who loves to meet new people, she said she's looking forward to meeting potential readers via book signings and speaking engagements and the Web magazine she started,

She kept a journal with her on the way to class, so she could write things down as they happened. In between semesters, she’d incorporate the entries into a manuscript.

"I’m glad I did this because, oftentimes, my emotions were raw as I wrote them down," she said. "By the time the entries made it to my manuscript, I had made peace with the moment, so the journal entries kept me on the right track."

The best writing advice she's been given? "To embrace my voice and writing style. At first, I wasn’t confidant that people would 'hear' my voice and style because it wasn’t Joan Didion’s, although I admire her style. My writing style and voice were me, however eclectic that may be," Hart said.

Advice to other writers: "I always tell people I did my best writing when I didn’t know how to write because I shot from the hip. I’ve had to unlearn some of the techniques that creative writing and journalism writing classes taught me because I felt my writing became too stilted and lacked personality, as it once had," she said. "My advice? Learn the basic rules of writing, character development, pacing a novel and descriptive phrases, showing not telling—although sometimes telling works."

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson is a Texas-based writer whose work has appeared in major magazines and newspapers. She is the author of The FabJob Guide to Party Planning. She is the editor of The Ennis Journal and a contributor to The Waxahachie Daily Light.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Writing Porch Author Q&A: Yvona Fast

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson interviews authors for other writers to watch, listen and learn from. To be considered for a Writing Porch Q&A, contact J. Louise Larson through the Comments feature:

Author: Yvona Fast

Book: Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning Disability: Stories and Strategies.

Publisher: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004, 272 pages, trade paper

Other publications: This book was recently translated into the Polish language; Yvona Fast's articles have been published in E, the Environment Magazine; Adirondack Daily Enterprise; Lake Placid News: American Small Farm; Vibrant Life: Home Cooking; Woman's Touch; American Health & Fitness; Health and Home; Equal Opportunity: Adirondack Explorer; OpEd News; Miami Family; ATA World; Asperger's Journal; Minority Engineer; Lifeglow; Advance; Christian Single.

Bio: Yvona Fast is an author, freelance writer, food columnist, editor, researcher and speaker living in northern NY state. For more information see her web site,

About Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning Disability: Stories and Strategies: My book is a career guide for individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning disability. There are personal stories of people grappling with work issues as well as practical advice on dealing with these issues.

Why this book? I was driven to write this book. I saw the need through a listserv I was on for people with these disorders. They kept saying 'there is nothing out there for adults.' Now there is.

How did you get a book published? I sent out query letters to publishers, and got a response from Jessica Kingsley.

What was the biggest challenge for you about this book? For my writing and speaking, my biggest challenge is the marketing part of it.

What's your favorite kind of writing and why? I enjoy writing essays and articles. I enjoy doing the research. My wiring is fact-based. Writing fiction is much more difficult. I don't have the imagination and I find it very difficult to create scenes.

What advice would you give other writers? Networking is key. As in everything in life, it's not what you know but who you know that matters.

What projects do you have coming up? I write a weekly food column which I'm trying to syndicate to more newspapers. I'm also working on a cookbook and a memoir with my mom.

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson is a Texas-based writer whose work has appeared in major magazines and newspapers. She is the author of The FabJob Guide to Party Planning. She is the editor of The Ennis Journal and a contributor to The Waxahachie Daily Light.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Writing Porch Q&A: Author Chris Fabry

Author: Chris Fabry is an author and radio host who lives in Colorado with his wife and 9 children. [This is not a typo.] His daily program is Chris Fabry Live! on Moody Radio.

Most Recent Book: Dogwood - Will returns from prison to the small town of Dogwood, West Virginia, and faces more opposition than he can imagine. The town, family, and the past catch up with him. Ruthie Bowles, an aged sage, helps him try to make a breakthrough. The story is also told through the character Danny Boyd, who lost his sisters in a tragic accident. Tyndale House (2008) Softcover/350 pages

Why this book? This story has been with me ever since I had the idea to write an adult novel. I've written in different genres, but never adult fiction. My friend, Jerry Jenkins [The Left Behind series], always says, "Write what will bring you to the keyboard every day." This is the story that did that. In fact, Jerry offered some time at his cabin in the mountains and it was there that I wrote a lot of this story.

What was the biggest challenge for you about this book? Keeping the truth veiled throughout the first 3/4 of the book. There are some pretty big reveals as you reach the end.

What do you love about this book? The way this book shows the persistent love of God in the face of indifference.

What are you hoping readers find interesting about this book? I hope readers fall in love with the area that I grew up in. West Virginia is a gorgeous state with wonderful, funny, and complicated people. It's not the caricature you may have seen in the news.

What advice would you give other writers? Persistence is the key. Write as much as you can. Find ways to get published that will be stepping stones. I wrote a column for our small, local paper and got much of my ideas on the page every week. Also, find a friend who is a published writer who can answer any question you might have. And read lots of books from Writers Digest.

What projects do you have coming up? The non-fiction book this year is The Winners Manual, written with Ohio State head football coach, Jim Tressel. I'm also working on the second of three novels written around the setting of Dogwood. That should be out in 2009.

Other books by Chris Fabry: The Winners Manual (With Jim Tressel), Left Behind: The Kids, Spiritually Correct Bedtime Stories, Red Rock Mysteries, The H.I.M. Book, At the Corner of Mundane and Grace, The 77 Habits of Highly Ineffective Christians. (More than 60 books published.)

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson is a Texas-based writer whose work has appeared in major magazines and newspapers. She is the author of The FabJob Guide to Party Planning. She is the editor of The Ennis Journal and a contributor to The Waxahachie Daily Light.

The Writing Porch's J. Louise Larson interviews authors for other writers to watch, listen and learn from. To be considered for a Writing Porch Q&A, contact J. Louise Larson through the Comments feature:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting it all done

It occurs to me as I try to engineer, rather than just NAVIGATE, my checkered writing career, that sometimes the problem is the solution.

I know, it sounds all zen and "Here's how it is, Grasshopper" - but something I discovered while beating deadline tonight resounded with some sort of eternal truth. There's not much of that to be had on deadline, usually - just a grinding of glass under the stone wheel of time as all sorts of things are made to break (or at least reduce) -- including my expectations.

So there I was, hammering away, checking my e-mail as is the custom, and a flitting phrase caught my peripheral vision. It was a google alert -- a quote from Immanual Kant, of all things. "To do is to be."

Wow, I thought. That's deep. Especially when I'd been fretting about how I was ever going to finish my book when I can't even get this week's calendar done. I have no extensive staff. No assistant, no associate. It's pretty much just an army of one. And some very nice people sharing a bit of their week with me at head office.

Work some more, fret some more. Another quote jumps off my laptop screen and sits, perched, on the bridge of my nose, just beyond my glasses, waving its little letters at me.

This time it's Paul Valery, admonishing me: "The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up."

So, in other words, Paul, what you're saying is: To do is to be.

And yes, I've heard the joke, and I know that Frank Sinatra said "Do be do be do." Which, in context, is pretty stinking brilliant.

So the dilemma of how to accomplish all these objectives? how to do it all? What someone wise and calm told me recently when I was feeling neither: Spend part of your time doing one thing, and part of your time doing the other.

Like one of my favorite children's books suggests (you know the one, about Homer or whatever his name is, and the red shirt?) Cut a little from here to put a little bit there.

I don't know why, but at 3:04 in the morning, I'm of the belief that I can do this. I can achieve this duality.

In this case, turning the problem inside out reveals the solution. In the seeds the problem sheds, a new solution springs up.

Do. Be. Do. Be. Do.

How do you balance your life? I'd like to know.